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NHC's Tropical Weather Outlook: How Accurate are its Predictions?

By: Dr. Jeff Masters, 2:46 PM GMT on July 20, 2013

Every Internet-savvy tropical weather enthusiast is familiar with the National Hurricane Center's Tropical Weather Outlook (TWO), which details potential threat areas that might become a tropical cyclone. (Tropical depressions, tropical storms, and hurricanes are all tropical cyclones.) The Tropical Weather Outlook is issued four times per day during hurricane season, and beginning in 2010, NHC began issuing 48-hour forecasts of the probability that specific threat areas identified in the TWO could develop into a tropical cyclone. Their Graphical Tropical Weather Outlook now color-codes each threat area depending upon how likely development is expected to be. A yellow circle is drawn for 0%, 10%, and 20% chances; orange for 30%, 40% and 50% chances, and red for 60% and higher odds. For example, the Saturday morning, July 20 TWO gave a 0% chance of development for an area of disturbed weather near the Florida Panhandle (Figure 1.)

Figure 1. NHC's Tropical Weather Outlook for 8am EDT July 20, 2013, showed an area of disturbed weather over the Gulf of Mexico being given a 0% chance of development in 48 hours. In 2012, 8% of all disturbances being given a 0% chance of development actually did develop.

How accurate is NHC's Tropical Weather Outlook?
So the big question is, how good are these forecasts? When NHC gives a 30% chance that an "Invest" will become of tropical cyclone, does this happen 30% of the time? Well, according to the 2012 National Hurricane Center Forecast Verification Report, NHC should have drawn fewer yellow circles and more orange circles and red circles during 2012, as there was a tendency to under-predict when a threat area might develop. For example (Figure 2), for the 46 forecasts where a 30% chance of development was given, 50% of the threat areas actually developed. Every disturbance that was given a 70% and higher chance of development ended up developing. This under-prediction tendency in 2012 is in contrast to the results from 2011, when the genesis forecasts were closer to the mark. For example, the 59 forecasts for a 30% chance of development resulted in a 31% "hit" rate of the storm actually developing in 2011. So far in 2013, there seems to be a tendency to under-predict again. For example, 48 hours before Tropical Storm Barry developed, NHC was carrying just a 10% chance of development.

Figure 2. NHC did predictions on new formation of a tropical depression or tropical storm (cyclogenesis) beginning in 2010. The forecasts are expressed in the Tropical Weather Outlook in 10% probability increments, and in terms of categories (“low”, “medium”, or “high”) for a tropical cyclone forming within a 48-hour period. These genesis forecasts had a low (under-forecast) bias in the Atlantic basin during 2012 (top). For example, for cases where a 30% chance of formation was given, the actual percentage of storms that formed was 50%. However, there the 2011 forecasts showed no systematic bias, and were closer to the mark (bottom.)

Expansion of the Tropical Weather Outlook to 5 Days
By August of the 2013 hurricane season, NHC is planning to begin including information about a system’s potential for development during the following five-day period. This will supplement the 48-hour probabilistic formation potential already provided in the Tropical Weather Outlook. NHC is currently developing a corresponding five-day genesis potential graphic that might also be available in 2013.

Quiet in the Atlantic
There are no other tropical cyclone threat areas in the Atlantic to discuss today. Saturday morning's 06Z run of the GFS model predicted that a tropical wave expected to move off the coast of Africa on Monday will develop later in the week. None of the other reliable models develop this wave, though the unreliable Canadian (CMC) model also suggests that the wave could develop.

Have a great weekend, everyone, and I'll be back Monday with a new post.

Jeff Masters


The views of the author are his/her own and do not necessarily represent the position of The Weather Company or its parent, IBM.